Researchers at Lucent Technologies' Bell Labs recently fired up a prototype web-based handheld video communication device. The system demonstrated the feasibility of delivering Internet access and MPEG-2 video to mobile computers. Lucent's current prototype connects local-area networks and depends on infrared wireless links. But the researchers expect to realize radio-frequency-based, outdoor, wide area network capability by the end of 1998.
Using asynchronous transfer mode (ATM) switches and a broadband adaptive homing ATM architecture, the prototype delivers a guaranteed bandwidth of ten Mbits/second on a wireless network, allowing users to send and receive high-speed data, voice, and video. Lucent's system features a demand-assignment medium-access-control protocol to distribute bandwidth among users on a given network segment, depending on the type of applications the users are running. Lucent is working with the ATM Forum to develop a set of standards for wireless ATM.
The development endeavor is part of the Mobile Information Infrastructure Project, which is partially funded by the U.S. Advanced Technology Program. Sun Microsystems is another contributor to the project, developing handheld devices to access the system. Once the radio-frequency capability is implemented, portable base stations the size of a coffee can (and capable of covering an area similar to that of a telephone network cell) could be linked to build a nationwide wireless multimedia network. But the RF system prototype won't emerge until the end of 1998, and the researchers estimate that such systems won't be commercially available until several years into the next century.
My guess is that this capability will not be used for videophoning. Any speculation on what uses will emerge? Post it in the Tech Scan conference.
Stanford engineer Elizabeth Downing has successfully prototyped an unusual device that can display moving 3D images in full color. The display looks like a glass cube. Because the images are somewhat transparent (a flat plane in the image does not obscure what lies behind it), the display is more suitable for applications such as displaying air-traffic-control data or medical scans than, say, for displaying architectural models.
Two grids of infrared lasers fire through a cube (made of a blend of heavy metals, fluoride, and glass), which acts as a noninterfering conduit for the laser beams. The cube is doped with three obscure elements (praseodymium, erbium, and thulium) that emit light (red, green, and blue, respectively) only when energized by two infrared beams at specific wavelengths. By carefully coordinating the firing of the lasers, Downing creates a full-color image inside the cube.
Downing is working with 3D Technology, of Mountain View, California, to refine and scale up the technology for commercial applications. In her current version-in-progress, a grid of lasers beneath the cube constantly sweep the cube's area, while lasers along one side define the image with carefully controlled pulses.
The technology has its advantages and disadvantages. The display's images can be viewed by a group of people at the same time. But the surfaces of objects in the images are somewhat transparent. So here's a great brainstorming opportunity. What other applications are suitable for the display? And, yes, arcade games have already been suggested.
In a classic example of missed opportunity, many developing countries are failing to take advantage of simple, inexpensive technological fixes for serious health problems. The World Bank estimates that for most poor countries, the cost of eliminating micronutrient deficiencies would be only 0.3 percent of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The bank estimates that the cost of the diseases caused by such deficiencies constitutes 5 percent of GDP.
Micronutrients are substances that the human body requires in tiny amounts but cannot manufacture for itself. Vitamin A, iron, and iodine are three particularly important micronutrients pertinent to common health problems in developing countries. Vitamin A is essential for good eyesight and a healthy immune system. Iron is necessary to avoid anemia. And iodine deficiency can cause brain damage and various forms of cretinism. Technical solutions are easy and inexpensive. Vitamin A capsules cost 50 cents per person per year. Iron may be distributed in capsules or as an additive to foods such as bread, sugar, and rice (a practice common in industrialized societies for decades). People can ingest iodine through local water supplies.
It isn't always clear why some countries fail to take advantage of micronutrient delivery systems. Unawareness of the option is a common excuse. But the fact is that the wealthy and powerful in developing countries can make a lot more money from food subsidies and the importation of foodstuffs than they can through selling vitamins. There's not much of a profit margin on 50 cents per year.
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The process of technological discovery within a company turns through repeating cycles as surely as the seasons turn throughout the year. At least, that's the contention of someone who's in a position to know. Joseph Miller is chief technology officer and senior vice president for research and development at E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Company, and the author of a fascinating article in the latest issue of Research Technology Management (January-February 1997). His conclusion: Du Pont is currently at the beginning of a new cycle that will witness another burst of discovery research.
Miller has identified four cyclical periods since 1927 at Du Pont in which phases characterized by discovery, innovation, and expansion alternate with periods of consolidation and restructuring. Each cycle is between 15 and 20 years in length. The years between 1927 and 1935 constituted a period of intense chemical discovery; 1935 to 1944 saw an emphasis on process chemistry and chemical engineering. Major discoveries in polymer science took place between 1944 and 1952, followed by a concentration on polymer processing technologies through 1960. The most recent cycle began in 1980, with rapid expansion into research in energy, life sciences, electronics, and imaging. The "down" part of this latest cycle occurred between 1980 and 1996, when the corporation downsized and narrowed its focus to core businesses.
Du Pont's agenda for this new phase of discovery, according to Miller, includes replacement of metals by engineering plastics, new forms of carbon, biomimetic composites, and combinatorial chemistry. Miller's "futures" list of "unreachable" goals includes elastic coatings as hard as diamonds, elastomers as strong as steel, materials that repair themselves, chemical plants that are contained on one microchip, and coatings that change color on command.
Miller has no explanation of what factors control the cycles, why they are so regular, or why they typically run to about 17 years. He's curious whether similar cycles occur in other companies, and what effect (if any) recent advances in networking and telecommunications technologies will have on the cycle.
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Some companies are experimenting with combining changing price lists with corporate email showing customer/prospect requests. They could also be combined with projects up for bid from publications like Commerce Business Daily (for government projects) and onsale.com and other Web-based transactional services.
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